Category Archives: Plants

Who Am I?

Last week I saw two caterpillars and a butterfly that teased me: Who am I?

1. While taking closeups of Japanese snowball fruit (Viburnum plicatum) I saw the tiny green insect above looking at me from the corner of a leaf.

Fruit of Japanese snowball viburnum, a favorite of American robins (photo by Kate St. John)

iNaturalist suggests he’s a moth in the genus Isa, a slug moth. However none of the photos show a caterpillar with a tiny black eye. He seems to be saying, “Who am I?”

2. On Lower Riverview Trail I paused where lots of tiny caterpillars were dropping to the ground on thin silk filaments. Were they a type of tussock moth? “Who am I?”

And in Schenley Park on the Greenfield Bridge I found an emperor. A hackberry emperor? A tawny emperor (Asterocampa clyton clyton). Thanks to Bob Machesney for the ID!

Tawny Emperor on the Greenfield Bridge , 16 July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Tiny Hairs

Moth mullein seed capsule (photo by Kate St. John)

This week I noticed for the very first time that there are tiny knobbed hairs on moth mullein stems, sepals and fruit capsules.

Closeup of moth mullein seed capsule (photo by Kate St. John)

Moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria) is a biennial plant native to Eurasia and North Africa that’s now naturalized in North America. It blooms here from June to October.

The earliest flowers have already produced fruit by July. Each fruit is the swollen ovary of one of these flowers.

Moth mullein (photo by Kate St. John)
Moth mullein (photo by Kate St. John)

Eventually, the stem and seed capsules dry out …

Moth mullein, dried seed pods (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… but they still have those tiny hairs. (Click here to see a closeup.)

(photos by Kate St. John. Except: dried seed pods from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original.)

Chocolate Lilies And Other Delights

Chocolate lily, 18 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last month we found chocolate lilies and other delightful wildflowers while on PIB‘s Alaska birding tour. Here are the best of them, mostly found at Turnagain Pass Rest Area on 18 June 2019. Please leave a comment to help me identify the ones I’ve labeled “mystery” flowers and correct any I’ve misidentified. Thanks!

At top, the chocolate lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis) is a gorgeous small flower that resembles a Canada lily (Lilium canadense) except that it’s the color of chocolate. What a treat!

Below, clasping twisted-stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius) has delicate bell-shaped yellow flowers that hang under the leaves. They remind me of Solomon’s seal.

Clasping twisted-stalk, near Anchorage, 13 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nootka lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis) starts blue, becomes white at the tip.

Nootka lupine, 18 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridum) is covered in spines that are hard to remove if they get in your skin. Don’t touch!

Devil’s club near Anchorage, 13 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Woolly geranium (Geranium erianthum) looks like Pennsylvania’s wild geranium. The flowers and leaves are larger, though.

Woolly geranium, 18 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

We saw liverleaf wintergreen (Pyrola asarifolia) in Seward.

Liverleaf wintergreen in Seward, 18 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

What is the yellow flower shown below? It looks like a cinquefoil to me but the leaves are so big. (The flower is about the size of the first joint of my thumb.)

Mystery: Is this a cinquefoil? (photo by Kate St. John)

I believe this is salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis). Am I right?

Is this salmonberry? 18 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Threeleaf foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), found in Seward.

Threeleaf foamflower in Seward, 20 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

I couldn’t identify this flower at first, but thanks to Janet Campagna’s comment I think these are yellow marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), seen at Turnagain Pass Rest Area, 18 June 2019.

Yellow marsh marigold at Turnagain Pass Rest Area, 18 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, dwarf fireweed (Chamaenerion latifolium) was easy to find along the Teller Road northwest of Nome.

Dwarf fireweed by the Teller Road outside Nome, Alaska, 21 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Please let me know if I’ve misidentified any of these. The solo yellow flower, 7th photo, remains a mystery.

(photos by Kate St. John, all of them taken with my Pixel 3 cellphone)

Ghost Flower

Indian pipe, Schenley Park, 11 July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

I found a ghost flower blooming in Schenley Park last Monday.

Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) looks ghostly because it has no chlorophyll. Instead it’s symbiotic or parasitic on fungi that have a symbiotic/parasitic relationship with tree roots. This makes Indian pipe a parasite on a parasite … sort of.

Though it’s a perennial member of the Heath family, Indian pipe only grows when conditions are perfect and these are so impossible to replicate that the plant isn’t cultivated.

Its stems and flowers grow and bloom in a couple of days. The flowers are pollinated, in part, by long-tongued bees and fade within 1-2 weeks. After pollination the developing fruit makes the flower head stand up. Click here to see.

Later this month I’ll return to see the fruiting stems and will look for remnants of the bizarre truck accident that was in progress when I found the flowers.

Tri-axle truck falls over the hill, 8 July 2019: I found Indian pipe while on a shortcut past the paving project on Serpentine Road. My normal route was closed because a huge tri-axle dump truck had pitched over the hillside, dumped its load of asphalt and was lying on its side. On Tuesday July 9 they winched the truck out of the valley. Unfortunately, as of Friday July 12 the asphalt is still on the hillside. 🙁 Click on the embedded news links to see what the accident looked like.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Look Under The Leaves

Milkweed blooming at Schenley Park, 26 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

All across western Pennsylvania a wide variety of milkweed is blooming and with it come the insects who depend it, especially monarch butterflies.

Look closely at the underside of milkweed leaves. If you find a small white dot it’s a monarch butterfly egg.

The plant I found didn’t have monarch eggs, but here’s a photo from Wikimedia Commons that shows you what to look for.

Monarch butterfly egg on underside of milkweed leaf (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I hope the milkweed leaves in Schenley Park have eggs soon …

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons)

Scarlet Pimpernel

Scarlet pimpernel blooming in Pittsburgh, 9 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Early this month I found scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) blooming in my city neighborhood. It’s not just a book, it’s a tiny orange-red flower.

Originally from Europe, Western Asia and North Africa the plant is hardy and sometimes invasive. It doesn’t mind growing next to salted roads so it has a lot of habitat in Pittsburgh. This one was growing in a crack in the sidewalk.

When I picked it I didn’t know that the plant is mildly toxic. For some people the leaves cause dermatitis. Fortunately they didn’t affect me.

Scarlet pimpernel is sometimes called poor man’s barometer because the flowers close at night and don’t bother to open on overcast days.

We haven’t had many clouds this summer so you should have no problem finding scarlet pimpernel blooming by a road near you.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Alaskan Flower

Alpine forget-me-not, Denali (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding Tour with PIB: at Denali 15 June 2019

Forget-me-nots in Pennsylvania are the Eurasian species, Myosotis scorpiodes, but in Alaska they have a native one. Found in alpine regions of Europe, Asia and North America, the alpine forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris) is the State Flower of Alaska.

According to Wikipedia, “it grows well throughout Alaska in open, rocky places high in the mountains, flowering in midsummer. It is also found throughout the Himalaya range at elevations of 9,800–14,100 ft.”

Its common English name, Forget-me-not, is a literal translation of its German name: Vergissmeinnicht.

It blooms at Denali in June.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Is This Tomato Planting Day?

Tomato plants in a "ring culture" (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Tomato plants in a ring culture (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Even though I don’t grow tomatoes I know a gardening rule of thumb from 40 years ago:  “Don’t plant tomatoes outdoors in Pittsburgh until Memorial Day.”

But times have changed.  Our growing season is longer than it used to be. USDA’s 2012 Plant Hardiness Zone map has a warm stripe that follows the Monongahela and Ohio valleys.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map for Pennsylvania as of May 2018 (map from
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map for Pennsylvania as of May 2018 (map from

Neighborhood gardening friends know it, too. They told me, “You can plant tomatoes in mid-May if you want.”

Well, believe it or not I’m not a gardener.  When the growing season arrives I spend all my time birding.  Around Memorial Day (today) I glance at the garden and think, “Something must be done!”  I go out there with my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and identify what’s growing. I pull out only the noxious weeds and leave everything else in place. At least I know king devil when I see it.

Today isn’t tomato planting day at my house, but I might pull a weed or two.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, map from USDA. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Used To Be Wild Flowers

Tulips (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We often forget that garden flowers were originally wildflowers. This is easy to do with tulips because they look so perfect and don’t match any of our wildflowers.

Tulips (Tulipa sp.) are members of the Lily family (Liliaceae) originally from southern Europe and Central Asia. Their nearest relatives are three wildflower genera, shown in the slideshow below.

  • Erythronium: The leaves are the right shape but the flower faces down. This is the genus of our trout lilies.
  • Amana: The flower looks like a tiny white tulip but the leaves are too narrow.
  • Gagea: This mostly Asian genus has thin leaves and more open flowers, least like a tulip.
  • Erythronium caucasicum, native to central Caucasus and North Iran (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

None of the tulips’ wild relatives look exactly like a tulip because they’ve been cultivated and crossbred since the 10th century in Persia. In the 1500s, Europeans visiting the Ottoman Empire saw garden tulips and were so impressed that they brought them home. Everyone fell in love with them.

By the 1600s tulips were a luxury item, The Netherlands was the main tulip-producing nation, and the most prized tulips were those with a color “break” of two or more colors, often striped as shown below. (Ironically the “break” was caused by a virus that damaged the tulip.)

The Semper Augustus Tulip, the most expensive tulip sold during Tulip Mania (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1630s the Netherlands developed a futures market on tulip bulbs and set the stage for Tulip Mania, a period of wild speculation in 1636-1637. At the height of Tulip Mania the top price paid for a coveted tulip rose to 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. It’s hard to translate that into today’s dollars, but my guess is $500,000 to $1 million for a single tulip bulb.

The mania ended abruptly when the market collapsed in February 1637.

Tulips went back to the garden and eventually escaped to the wild in western Europe. After all, they used to be wild flowers.

This 7-minute video is a good explanation of Tulip Mania.

(photos and chart from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Quiz: Which Ones Are Lilies?

Day lily (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last weekend we learned about a member of the Lily family called false hellebore. Today, a quiz.

All of these flowers have the word “lily” in their names but not all of them are in the Lily family (Lilieae). Can you point out the true lilies?

  1. Day lily, above
  2. Canada lily, below.
Canada lily, Raccoon Creek State Park, July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

3. Cala lily

Cala lily (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4. Trout lily.

Trout lily (photo by Kate St. John)

5. Lily of the Valley

Lily of the valley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6. Bluebead lily (Clintonia)

Clintonia borealis (yellow blue-bead lily), Ashford, CT (photo by Doug McGrady, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Leave a comment with your answer. Later today I’ll put the answers in a comment of my own.

(photos by Kate St. John, Doug McGrady Creative Commons license on Flickr, and from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)